The Power of Story to Form Community: Reading Together
Last year I formed a reading group that meets on Zoom to discuss literature. Initially our plan was to read Lord Of The Rings through hard lockdown. But towards the end of 2020 a handful of regulars contacted me privately, both to express their gratitude for the group and to request that we carry on. What had started out as a kind of shared interest group had become a community. This shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was, for stories contain tremendous power to form, bind, and shape communities. This is one of the main themes of Watership Down, the story we are currently reading. But we’ll get to that later.
With the help of Jane Davis, I argued this point a few years back. In Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, Davis notes that we’re increasingly living in what is called a “low-affect society.” This means we are wary of expressed feeling or emotion while being addicted to entertainment and excitement. Linked with this, Davis says that the decline of organised religion and religious discourse has “led to a poverty of language, and thus to a poverty of contemplative thought and feeling about what we are, and what we need.” Chasing religion out of the public square, so she says, has left us without a way to explore and map our inner spaces.
The Digital Age and the Demise of Community
Of course, the rise of the digital trinity—social media, streaming services, and smartphones—has furthered this emptying out of our souls and the disintegration of meaningful communities. Neil Gaiman anticipated this point back in the 90s, in his suitably titled American Gods. Referring to the television, one of the “new gods” (Media) says, “I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.” Three decades later things have only worsened. But instead of the family—or friends—gathering in the lounge to worship in front of a single screen, we are now scattered and isolated, watching on our separate devices. Thus we haven’t only become insatiable consumers of entertainment but our viewing habits are causing the disintegration of relationships and community.
Returning to Jane Davis’ essay, she writes: “What makes people happy, above all, is a network of supportive fellow creatures, a sense of purpose, challenge, and meaningful occupation. Shared reading can provide all of this.” This has certainly been my experience within my reading group over the past 18 months. Of course, shared reading is not the only means of finding and forming community. But it is certainly one of the best. On the other hand, the technology that heralded the digital age has not ushered in a renewal of community or the marked deepening of relationships. Sure, we are more connected. Yet we are facing a global pandemic of loneliness. There is no shortage of content to consume through our screens. But we are never satisfied. Then there’s social media, ironically one of the most divisive advents of the last two decades.
Rediscover the Power of Reading
So I am a zealous advocate for reading—though let me make a few caveats. Firstly, books can also have an isolating effect, not dissimilar from our screens and individualistic streaming habits. Secondly, reading in and of itself is not a positively formative habit. For we can mindlessly consume stories in the same way we watch series and films. Thirdly, linked with both of my previous points, books are a proven and renowned means of escapism. I’m not calling for a moratorium on ‘airport literature’ or popular fiction. Good stories are meant to be enjoyed. However, considering their immense power to form and deepen community, we should not settle for isolated, thoughtless, and escapist reading. A great book can do so much more. So pick up a book, gather a few people to discuss it, and see what happens.
In conclusion, listen to Stanley Hauerwas on Watership Down and the formation of community through story, “Without trying to claim a strong continuity between rabbits and us, I think at least the suggestion that we, no less than rabbits, depend on narratives to guide us has been made. And this is particularly important to Christians, because they also claim their lives are formed by the story of a prince. Like El-ahrairah, our prince was defenceless against those who would rule the world with violence. He had a power, however, that the world knew not. For he insisted that we could form our lives together by trusting in truth and love to banish the fears that create enmity and discord. To be sure, we have often been unfaithful to his story, but that is no reason to think it is an unrealistic demand. Rather, it means we must challenge ourselves to be the kind of community where such a story can be told and manifested by a people formed in accordance with it.”